Paint and Primer in One: What to Know Before You Buy

Paint primer

The Spruce

For most homeowners, exterior house paint work can take weeks or months. Interior painting, while not as involved, can use up weekends when you'd rather be doing something else. Now, imagine stripping away one component of that project and how much time you might save as a result.

The component is the priming step, which comes before the paint itself. A type of paint called paint and primer in one, or self-priming paint, just might be what you need to hand you back that free time you're owed. Increasingly, paint manufacturers are advertising self-priming paint as a way to lift the burden of priming from homeowners' shoulders.

What Is Self-Priming Paint?

This is paint with primer mixed into it. It allows you to entirely eliminate the priming step from your painting process. This type of paint product is sold under a variety of names including paint-primer.

What Is Paint and Primer in One?

When you paint a house and need to prime in advance, usually it is a two-part step. First, you use a thin-bodied white or tinted primer. Second, you use thicker-bodied latex paint—which delivers the true paint color and outer protection that you need.

Paint and primer in one is a thicker paint that builds higher to give you a sturdier coat of paint. Since it is tinted just like conventional paint, there is no need to cover up the initial layer of white primer.

Why You Might Need Primer

Priming a surface before painting is often a tough sell for many homeowners because its benefits are not immediately evident. Primer is not color, nor is it even a protective coat. Painting the color coat is near-instant gratification, while priming is drudge-work that eventually gets covered up.

Yet priming before painting is often necessary when dealing problem surfaces that will not take paint well:

  • All bare surfaces that are very porous
  • Raw, unfinished wood
  • Uncoated metal
  • Drywall
  • Masonry

You also need to prime when you are worried about wood-bleeding, gloss, grease, or other areas that make paint-adhesion difficult.

While you always do want to clean the surface as much as possible and roughen up glossy areas, this still does not automatically make the surface perfect and ready for a topcoat. Primer helps bring the surface closer to perfection.

Self-Priming Paint Builds Higher

Self-priming paint is thicker than normal, non-priming paint. The paint industry term is "build." Paint and primer in one has a higher build, meaning that in its cured (dry) state it rises, or builds up, to a thicker layer than regular paint or primer.

Most self-priming paint, despite the heavier consistency, should still be capable of being run through a paint sprayer without thinning.

When speaking of consistencies, note that primer itself (not paint and primer in one) is a relatively thin-bodied material. Primer is thin so that it will more readily soak into porous surfaces.

Tip

You can still use a separate primer coat before laying down a coat of paint and primer in one for particularly stubborn surfaces.

When Primer Is Not Needed

With some projects, you may not need paint and primer in one or any type of primer at all. Ideally, all surfaces should be patched, primed once or twice, then painted twice again. But realistically, it may be necessary to cut out the priming step.

Clean, dry, and fairly low-porous surfaces in good condition may not need any priming. This describes the walls in a typical interior living room, bedroom, dining room, or hallway.

When you are re-painting a color with the same color, you can usually use just one or two coats of paint—primer not required.

When Should You Use Self-Priming Paint?

While not an exclusive list, you may want to use paint and primer in one when:

  • Re-painting: Re-painting a wall in the same color as self-primer paint works well because you do not have to worry about color bleed-through.
  • Drywall: When you are painting new, unfinished drywall and you do not want to prime separately, consider using self-primer paint. New drywall always has to be primed in some form.
  • Interiors: Interior surfaces work best with paint and primer in one since interiors do not experience the stresses of exteriors—UV rays, rain, and snow. 

If your house has any paint problems—peeling, flaking, bubbling—consider using a conventional primer instead.

Will Paint and Primer in One Save Money?

Self-priming paint is restricted to the more expensive premium paint lines. This is important to note because this immediately drives up costs. You cannot go cheap with self-priming paint, even on a per-gallon basis.

Consider these thumbnail estimates:

  • Two Coats of Self-Primer: Apply a coat of self-priming paint at $25 per gallon. Let it dry. Apply the second coat of self-priming paint: $25 per gallon again. For an exterior requiring 20 gallons of paint and primer, your tab is $1,000 or a bit less. 
  • Primer and Paint: Apply a coat of primer at $12 per gallon. Let it dry. Apply a coat of exterior acrylic latex paint, non-self-priming, at $17 per gallon. When splitting primer and paint quantities down the middle (10 gallons each), the grand total is $290. Even being conservative and rounding up to $500, you are still spending a lot of money with the self-priming option.

In the first scenario, you are using expensive, tinted self-priming paint as your primer vs. less expensive real primer. After all, the tint is another factor that drives up paint costs.

Brands of Self-Priming Paint

A few paint manufacturers still do not expressly put "self-priming" on the the label. The self-priming quality is usually mentioned secondarily. To confirm, you can usually find technical specifications for paints on manufacturers' sites.